Those diagnosed with any form of cancer immediately are thrust into a world known as “the new normal.”
It is anything but normal.
“The new abnormal” would be a better name.
Normal will never happen again for me. My reality of attempting some form of normal for the last seven years doesn’t mean life is normal for me. It means I’ve learned how to exist in crazy. Maybe I should refer to present-day life as my old crazy because I’ve existed this way for so long. The new normal phrase has always rubbed me the wrong way because normal was ripped away and replaced with nothing of the sort.
Is calling what I do the new normal supposed to somehow make me feel normal? It doesn’t. Instead, it makes me feel like I can’t even do the new normal normally. Is it meant to make me or others feel better? It doesn’t make me feel better. I’m not sure if it makes others feel better. It potentially minimalizes what I do in the eyes of others. It invalidates my struggles in what really is abnormal because of the language that this is the norm.
The new abnormal is a topsy-turvy world of back and forth. It’s a world of opposites. I have felt wonderful and miserable.
I’ve gained and lost weight even though my level of exercise has remained about the same.
I’ve had my share of down days plagued with fatigue and others with more steroid induced energy than I know what to do with.
I’ve had no appetite and other times where I’ve eaten everything in sight.
Diarrhea. Constipation. One word sentences here are fine.
The medical world is a potpourri of repeating abnormalities. There are more one word or near one word sentences coming.
Labs. Office visits. Treatments. Side effects. Repeat.
Scans. Anxiety. Regrouping. Repeat.
I call insurance companies and billing departments far more often than is necessary. I rarely did when my life was supposedly normal.
I’ve gotten to feel at home with nausea. Ondansetron works well for me when it hits.
I’ve gotten to feel at home with many other drugs and supplements. I know what works for me and what doesn’t. I know my body well. I think I have finally broken through and convinced my team NOT to give me one particular drug used during MRIs that causes a worsening reaction. Every office visit begins with a review of my long list of medications.
How is any of that normal whether it’s the new routine or not?
In between all of this complete abnormalness are all the attempts to squeeze in any normal moments that are possible. ME time. I exercise and plan activities I enjoy that will keep me moving. Time with family and friends fill in normal moments. Football season has started. Go Badgers! Special occasions are sprinkled into my schedule when possible. There still is meaningful work that matters to me. Whereas my schedule had always been fairly rigid, I love the flexibility I now have. Being able to focus on purposeful work has been one part of my new abnormal that feels pretty close to my old normal.
The only constants are change and the need to live in the moment. Cancer has taught me lessons in change repeatedly. I am more present. It’s why I like #NotTodayCancer so well because I can be pretty definite about certain things as I go through my day.
The new normal is not the right term for how I live. Life is abnormal. Calling my life permanently abnormal is the best fit.
The role of a teacher is important and valuable. A teacher’s influence is still seen years later. Students return to say hello, to thank you, to hug you, and to say they made it. It’s the best kind of recognition a teacher can receive. I enjoy seeing former students. The oldest students I taught must be around thirty-five or thirty-six years old by now. For the record, I’ve taught around 543 students. Admittedly, those numbers make me feel old, but it’s a good old because I loved teaching. Working with children brought me immense joy and sometimes it drove me crazy. There were good days and hard days as are inevitable when over twenty children were put together on a daily basis.
I remember one student of mine who had very troubling years getting through elementary school. He was violent and destructive. He scared children. He scared adults if I’m being honest. Staff eventually learned some of his trigger words and actions that foreshadowed he was close to losing whatever control he had of himself. One such signal was if he suddenly started clucking like a chicken. He was a teacher to us in that way. We all wondered if he would make it through middle and high school. He did. He returned with other graduating seniors several years ago to visit. We talked and he struck me as happy and excited about his future. He had plans to attend a community college and learn a trade. He told another teacher that he was better now. Elementary school held a positive place in his heart even though it was excruciating for him. He wouldn’t have returned if we hadn’t mattered.
Curriculum is significant, but HOW teachers teach it and the connections we make while doing so are even more important. I always thought my two largest roles as a teacher were to help my students become critical thinkers and to teach them to be kind to one another. Knowing how to think and be kind will positively impact the world more than knowing a lot about numbers, science, or words (all of which are amazingly awesome on their own).
I am finally getting to how all of this connects to storms. Life has storms. We need to know how to think and be kind when one of life’s storms comes our way. Storms are teachers.
Poems also are powerful teachers. Writers create images that stick with people for different reasons. Mark Nepo is a poet and spiritual advisor who has taught poetry and spirituality for over thirty years. He has written fourteen books and has a wide following. He also is a cancer survivor. His poem titled Behind the Thunder weaves together ideas of learning to be strong without losing yourself. I believe its point is that an event can change you but that you don’t give yourself over to it. At its core, the poem is about resilience.
Behind the Thunder
~ Written by Mark Nepo
I keep looking for one more teacher,
only to find that fish learn from water
and birds learn from the sky.
If you want to learn about the sea,
it helps to be at sea.
If you want to learn about compassion,
it helps to be in love.
If you want to learn about healing,
it helps to know of suffering.
The strong live in the storm
without worshipping the storm.
Cancer is one bleeping kind of a storm.
And no, I can’t use the word I’d like to use after a poem written by Mark Nepo.
It wouldn’t be right.
What a storm it is. It has drenched me. I have lived with this storm. Like a fish that has learned from water, and like birds that have learned from the sky, I have learned from the storm. I have suffered, but I feel I have also learned a little about healing. This is what the storm as a teacher has taught me:
It’s better to exist in the storm from a place of healing rather than a place of suffering.
The storm has made me stronger than I knew I could be.
The storm hasn’t broken me. It won’t. It can’t destroy my soul.
Cancer has been a rather cruel and unrelenting teacher, but effective. Maybe it intended to turn me bitter and negative, but it failed. Through it, I have learned about joy, kindness, peace, and gratitude.
Just because I live in a storm doesn’t mean I’m a human lightning rod. I will protect myself seeking shelter and sanctuary in whatever way I can.
The storm has not made me ugly. I am more beautiful than ever. Living in this stupid storm has taught me how to finally embrace and recognize my beauty.
There are some who will never understand how I think or feel about this storm. It’s okay. I don’t understand myself a lot of the time anyway.
Others live in similar storms. We can support one another and learn together.
There will be more storms.
I am resilient.
Thunder can’t hurt me.
It’s the lightning that’s the problem.
I’m still learning.
What lessons have you learned from living in a storm?
Finding A Way – Living with Cancer while Living Well – officially is one year old. I am amazed at how much I’ve written and have grown as a writer. It is a good time to review the year and make goals for moving forward.
In the beginning, I wrote about what I searched for in order to be my best. I sought to find ways to increase my strength and stamina. I wanted to stay motivated and never give up my belief that I am healthy. I planned to lead and live by example. I’ve always searched for purpose and meaning in my life.
I am interested in finding joy, positivity, strength, and hope. Finding A Way involves living with cancer while living well. I wanted to achieve this for myself but also hoped that by writing some of my thoughts and story that I would be able to help others find their way. My intention has always been that anyone reading could come away with something to apply to his or her life whether that person had cancer or not.
Strength and hope are two themes I’ve spent a lot of time on. I suspect they will continue to be common themes for posts. Other themes I plan to explore more deeply are identity, fear, trust, perspectives, and change. I enjoy exploring topics through story, metaphors, and when using narrative lends itself to showing these concepts in action. Using these elements provide a visual hook for me and tends to solidify meaning. I remember things better when I have a story attached or have made a personal connection.
Health and exercise have been and will continue to be repetitive threads in my posts.
Frustrations (and perhaps positive experiences) of my interactions with the medical world as I navigate it from my position as a patient may become more common.
I plan to continue posting positive quotes on Wednesdays to add a bright spot into people’s weeks.
My most viewed post was Stage V and Kardashian Power. I have never watched the reality show or follow them in the news. My intention to live and lead by example and change perceptions, definitions, and conversations around metastatic cancer is still a main goal of mine. I know what the statistics say regarding metastatic breast cancer but I still choose to live with a mindset that has moved past the confining medical constraints and live in expectation with my own. I continue to be surprised at what appeals to people. I find it absolutely hysterical that my most liked post was Exercise and Nutrition. At last count, it had 31 likes. I’m so not an expert.
I don’t feel like I’m an expert in anything. I just write about my feelings and how I’m trying to live well with cancer.
I’ve looked over my posts and have identified some of my favorites. I have many! These are listed below and you may click on any of them if you’d like to look back and reminisce. If you are a new reader, I hope they provide insight into what I write about, how I think, and that you enjoy them. I may repost some of these that I want to highlight again. They are still relevant. There is no need to reinvent the wheel if the wheel I’ve created still rolls well.
I plan to continue to write about my life. I invite you to follow along as a subscriber on WordPress by clicking on the gray or blue “Follow” button, or become an email subscriber and receive an email notification whenever I post something new. Please also remember to like a post if you enjoyed it. Comments are always welcomed. I encourage you to leave one. The prompts I provide at the end of some posts are only a guide.
I appreciate you all as readers and taking the time to read my words. Your emotional support means a lot to me. I wish each of you the very best on your search to find a way, as I keep searching for mine.
Find a way.
What have been favorite posts you’ve enjoyed as a reader?
What topics or themes would you like to read about in the future?
I heard this comment a while back referring to a TV personality. She has written songs and books. She’s written a movie, starred in it, and directed one. She’s co-hosted two morning TV shows. She had a lasting marriage, is a mother, and seems to be loved by many friends. I don’t know her, yet I get the feeling she returns that love back to friends and strangers.
She is talented. I like her.
You may even correctly guess this person’s identity. I’m purposely not going to name her because that really isn’t the point. It could be many people. Those in the public eye often achieve a level of success and celebrity because they are so visible in the public eye. Opportunities and connections come to them like bees to honey. Opportunities and connections are wonderful, as are bees and honey. Nothing is wrong with any of those things.
What I want to write about is success.
How is success defined?
Does success mean doing it all?
It certainly can.
But I haven’t done most of the things this woman has done and I am still successful.
I have family and friends who love me and I love them back.
I established myself in a career I loved where I was respected and made a difference. I feel that overall I was liked and had a good reputation. I worked hard over many years to earn that respect and reputation.
I have traveled extensively including all 50 states and 26 countries.
I have a beautiful home.
I have interests that allow me to grow while still feeling whole.
I see beauty in people and places.
I even have a few books and songs. Unpublished for now. I’d love to see that change with the books. The world may be better off without the songs. Lucky ones have heard these.
Each individual has his or her own definition of success. For a long time, the most familiar model for success meant money and power in the business world. Success was measured with a dollar sign. You were more admired if you held immense power. Popularity was an important indicator of success. You knew you had made it in the world if everyone knew your name. It mattered who you knew and how well connected you were. Success was defined by money and possessions.
Of course, life isn’t this way for most people. I suppose the above description does match a definition of success for a few. The fictitious George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life beautifully demonstrates how someone who doesn’t fit the above description still embodies success. He’s even the richest man in town because he has qualities that matter more than money or power.
Success to me means being loved and feeling happy. I have both of those.
Success means being healthy. I would love not to have cancer. But I do. I am thankful for the health I do have. I can’t feel defeated or unsuccessful when I always try. Some things are out of my hands.
Health means a lot. Life changes when a person has lost their health, mobility, or independence due to an injury or illness. I now live with one of those pre-existing conditions. I’m on Medicare. I receive disability. I can’t take long trips like I once did because of a revolving door of medical appointments. When I do travel someplace, I pack a traveling pharmacy. I try to keep up but need to do less sometimes. A lot has changed. Many health dominoes have toppled over much earlier for me than I thought they would if they toppled at all. The thing with dominoes is that when one domino falls, others do, too. I took my relatively good health before cancer for granted. When a person has good health, they do have everything. I still have a lot, but life is different.
Feeling happy and healthy are the two forces that guide any feelings of success I have.
I am not “doing it all.” Having/Doing it all means different things to different people. It’s all relative to an individual. If I don’t have what someone else has does it mean I am lacking, or vice versa if the situation is reversed? My goals are to be as happy and as healthy as I can be. I still want to get up in the morning with the intention to somehow be helpful if possible and to live joyfully. I want to go to sleep at night with the satisfaction that I succeeded.
Take a moment and think of a time when you felt successful. What had you done? How did you feel?
I’ll give a few examples that may trigger some ideas.
One of my extracurricular activities in high school was forensics. I was a storyteller. Although I never came in first at a meet, I did place well enough to earn a trophy once. The trophy wasn’t all that important. I felt successful in retelling a story so well that I painted a picture with only my words and captured my audience. I also felt extremely successful that I never passed out during a telling. I had a wide range of standards to define success in those days.
I also am privileged to present a small scholarship to a graduating high school student who plans to major in education. It isn’t much, but it’s important for me to be able to give back. I feel successful that I can support someone’s dream in a small way. Still feeling connected to the educational community also makes me feel successful.
Reaching goals enable a person to feel successful. When I finish a hike or a bike ride I feel successful because I have completed something from start to finish. When I’m able to lift more weight or meet a new benchmark in my training sessions I feel successful because I know I have made progress. Goals can be small to still feel successful. I know someone who had a brief stay in the hospital and needed to move around more even though it was painful to walk far. She told me one of the nurses saw her making a slow lap around the halls on the floor. Afterward, the nurse came into her room and made three boxes on the whiteboard where general notes were written about diet, meds, and other plans. She checked off one box for one lap and told my friend she needed to do two more that day. My friend confided in me she really didn’t want to because walking hurt and she was so slow. But those empty boxes stared at her waiting to be crossed off. The boxes were such small things, but very motivating. She did what she had to do. She simply crossed them off without walking to make it look like she had done the work. No, she didn’t, but I wouldn’t have put it past her. She did two more laps, each one faster than the last. She was very pleased with herself. I was proud of her.
No money, fame, or power were in any of these examples. Success truly came from a place of happiness, being able to help, and being healthy enough to get something done.
As long as I can find a way to feel happy, helpful, and healthy, I will be successful.
I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts on how you define success.
Living with cancer has given me the opportunity to spend more time reading for enjoyment. It is a welcomed escape. I recently read one of Brené Brown’s books, Braving the Wilderness. In today’s post, I explore this book’s themes from three different lenses.
Lens One: Braving the Wilderness Brené Style
This lens is a basic introduction to the book’s main message. Brené Brown explains that being brave involves being true to yourself. Being brave means bringing life to your story. You are the only one who can do it.
She says you aren’t going to please everyone. Inevitably, it means you can’t be brave and never disappoint anyone. So true.
If you seek the constant approval of others and people pleasing is more important than your own inner happiness, you are not being brave.
There will be criticism with braveness. There will be LOTS of criticism.
There will be great moments of uncertainty because you are standing alone.
There will be vulnerability as you discover all your truths and how you are discovering exactly how you belong.
These sound terrifying. Going through life not knowing yourself is more terrifying. Braving the wilderness means you stand firm when you face the wind and disapproval of others. When you know yourself, you have the courage to stand firm in your beliefs because you know who you are.
To truly belong, you only need to belong to yourself.
That’s the biggest take away for me in the whole book. In a world where belongingness is sought after in almost every interaction and relationship, we all lose sight that the most valuable relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves. The interactions that matter most are the ones directed at how we treat ourselves.
She writes that “true belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.”
Belonging is intertwined with I AM.
Lens Two: Braving the Wilderness with Cancer
My opinion and personal interpretation take over with this lens.
Having cancer is a wilderness of its own. Truly belonging to yourself and blending that wilderness with a cancer wilderness is challenging. To own both wildernesses is overwhelming.
I believe if Brené Brown were to speak directly to me, she would say to lean in fully to the loneliness and discomfort of cancer. She would emphasize the need to become vulnerable with it. The personal connection with it would change how I feel about it. At least I think that’s what she’d say.
I also think I’ve had plenty of loneliness, discomfort, and enough of a personal connection with cancer already.
Brené Brown writes a lot about boundaries. The firmer the boundaries, the more respected they will be. It is not okay to be taken advantage of and trampled upon physically or emotionally. You can’t belong to yourself if you are crushed.
Cancer can crush a person as much as someone else can. Being bald makes you look and feel less feminine. Surgeries do the same and you’re left feeling “less than.” Others often confirm it. If you are flat, then you somehow have lost your womanhood. Perceptions around going flat are slowly changing. Treatments take all the oomph out you so there isn’t much energy left for you to object to cancer defining you. Medical labels, side effects, perceptions, and an evolving normal keep shifting. It’s easy for cancer to define someone. It’s much harder to claim belongingness.
Suddenly, you are not you anymore, but the person with cancer. Everyone has a story to share with you because that’s how they attempt to connect with you and now identify with you. It’s important to set boundaries for how you want to be treated.
Firm boundaries support trust. When others respect boundaries, it is safer to trust them. Trust has caused me an ocean of hurt. A lot has become clearer to me in the last few years.
To me, living with cancer and learning to trust more means:
I share what I want about my health and expect my privacy to be respected.
I do not have to explain or justify my feelings, nor do I need to provide a reason so others understand.
I can’t trust a person with the big stuff if someone has betrayed that trust with smaller stuff.
I need to feel physically and emotionally safe in order to feel connected to someone.
Strong boundaries enable a person to have more empathy for others. Self-care comes first. Then you know what you can do and not do for others. I still identify as a helper. Taking care of myself first lets me know what time and energy I have available for others.
Living well demands I brave it – it being life – and I’m braving it fiercely these days. The older I get, the more at home I feel in my own skin. I’ve known for some time that my happiness depends on my braving life. I am comfortable with most of the decisions I make. Being brave is both frightening and peaceful at the same time. The uncertainty and vulnerability show up as frightening, but then the acceptance of those parts of my life oddly brings an element of peace.
Lens Three: Braving Well Together
This sounds like an oxymoron if braving the wilderness involves only needing to belong to ourselves and having the courage to stand alone yet firmly in our beliefs and values. The way I see it, there is still room for the support of others who are also being brave. Picture a wilderness scene. I can be standing in my wilderness next to a beautiful mountain lake holding a sign that proclaims my beliefs. Another person can be standing a few feet away near a magnificent tree with a sign that reads entirely different. Part of my wilderness may be accepting and trusting others. This holds challenges for me, but I need to be vulnerable enough to slowly test those waters. The other person may be working on keeping a few more personal thoughts and the confidences of others private. We can give each other the acknowledging head nod to show our support while still recognizing the work is an individual inner process.
The other way I believe we can be brave together is that it’s when we feel alone and are brave that someone else comes along and gives voice that they feel exactly the same way. We may think we are alone, but we are not. It’s very possible that someone was feeling the same way and was beyond grateful to cross paths with someone else giving voice and standing his/her ground in a way they needed. When we are brave on our own, social connections can be found. It’s part of finding your tribe.
Vulnerability has always been tough for me. Honestly, I haven’t always liked Brené Brown’s work. I stopped reading her first book years earlier because I didn’t like what she had to say and I found her too repetitive. Looking back, I wasn’t ready to do some of the work I needed to do.
I still have work to do. LOTS. There is so much I don’t have figured out. I’ve figured out this much: I’ve become more comfortable braving the wilderness.
Have you read any of Brené Brown’s books? What stands out to you?
Summer arrived right on time. Last weekend brought a picture perfect day. Little clouds scattered themselves across the blue sky. Green leaves danced on tree branches, delighted with the sunshine. Green grass swayed in the warm breeze. Frogs on the ground sang to one another but still went unseen. Birds called out to each other from branches with their song. Everything was fully alive again.
I went for a hike in Pheasant Branch Conservancy.
I enjoy hiking there for many reasons. Sometimes I enjoy the shade and protection of the trees in woodland areas. When phlox blooms, it can almost completely cover some places in shades of purple and white glory. Other parts are wide-open prairie. The watershed is of particular interest to people and wildlife alike. The area even has geothermal springs.
I love the hill the most. It offers unparalleled views of the watershed as well as of the Capitol building in the distance. It’s never crowded. After the climb and I’m on top looking out at the conservancy wetlands, I take a well-deserved rest for a few moments. I’ve even done warrior pose on the lookout platform to remind myself of my strength and celebrate my accomplishment.
The path leading to the top had been closed earlier in spring because it was too wet to have people hiking it. My understanding was there was a mix of safety concerns for walkers and also concerns to protect the trail from damage caused by people stomping all over it before it had hardened from the spring thaw.
My hike last weekend held challenges for me. I didn’t know if the hill path was going to be accessible or not, so I parked my car farther away so I could do a long quality walk if it wasn’t open. My hike wound up being a little longer than I wanted and I got hotter than I hoped. I don’t function well when I overheat. I was warm from the start but I refused to wimp out on the first truly warm day when there would be months of summer heat ahead of me. I enthusiastically convinced myself this was conditioning and I could do it.
I could do it, albeit not very enthusiastically or convincingly.
I discovered the hill path was open and thought I could manage it. I wanted to make it to the top. It’s never been terribly steep or long. However, my walk was plenty long already not including the hill. The ground was still muddy from recent rain in a few spots. There always are uneven parts and I need to watch my footing. I had about five minutes or less left to reach the top when I decided I should turn around and make sure I had ample energy to get back to my car. A tinge of disappointment tugged at my heart, but I know my body well. It was time to head back. I knew I would come back soon.
On my trek down, I met a man going up. He was about my age, give or take a few years. He hiked on crutches. He wore a boot on his left foot like you’d see on someone who had had surgery or had injured his foot. A smile on his face exuded cheer.
I didn’t need to see this man. Or maybe I did.
Crutch Man was obviously fit and strong. I was amazed by how steady he appeared. The nearest parking lot was already a good distance away to have traveled on crutches. Here he was taking on a climb. I marveled at his confidence. I wanted the kind of will power he possessed. It appeared like this hill was no big deal to him. It was too big of a deal for me to push myself with two strong legs and on two feet. The image of him accomplishing something that I wasn’t doing stuck with me for the rest of my walk. It stuck around for the rest of the day.
I felt I had invisible crutches.
How did he manage? What kind of mindset did he have? How could I get it? What was the lesson for me to learn?
Crutch Man, if you’re by chance reading this, I’d love to talk and ask you these questions directly.
What’s easy for one person is challenging for another and vice versa. I imagine I do (or have done) things that others can’t fathom. Teaching a room full of second graders could fall into that category. Living well with cancer could be another. I deal with a lot of medical stuff. I travel on my own. I support myself. We all have something.
Crutches are there to support you while you need help, not keep you less mobile indefinitely. Someone wouldn’t use physical crutches longer than what was needed. Invisible crutches are often used longer than necessary. They are comfortable and safe. They can’t be seen so the owner may not fully realize they are even using them. They are that little voice that nags we better not do “x” for any number of excuses but most of all because then there would be no use for the crutches anymore.
What are other names for invisible crutches people have that are harmful rather than helpful?
There is fear of being hurt, physically or emotionally. There is fear of rejection. Fear of failure is a big one. Failures only keep us from success if we don’t try again. Fear of change is another possibility.
Getting rid of this invisible crutch lets you live more boldly. What if you don’t meet a goal on the first try? So what? I see two possibilities. You try again or move on. What if everything does go as hoped? Wonderful! Do not fear success. Abandon worries and enjoy your moment in the sun.
Comparison is an invisible crutch if you compare yourself unfavorably to a colleague at work, another’s diagnosis, progress, another relationship, or some type of success that you haven’t experienced. There seldom is enough information to make a valid comparison. Why do we do this? I know I’m not the only one. Getting to the top of the hill may have been a goal of Crutch Man’s for some time. Perhaps he had been chunking together small successes for months. Maybe he is part bionic. I have no idea. I don’t know his story. The story I initially told myself was he was better than me and I must be a loser. He very well could have been more capable than me at that moment, but I am definitely NOT a loser.
I know I can hike the hill. I just can’t hike the hill, include a long walk, and do a little gardening all on one hot day (which is what I tried). People are always comparing themselves to others with results that usually find they don’t measure up. I need to stop. Who’s with me? The only thing I need to compare myself to is my own progress. Even then it’s silly because comparing myself to the “me” of my past doesn’t help with the “me” of my present.
Live in the now and forget about comparing.
Limiting beliefs and negative self-talk get you nowhere. They may cause regression. If you think you can’t do something, you probably can’t. If you think small, you may be successful but you might not fulfill your potential.
If you think you can, you may very well succeed. If not, you will learn something that will help you move toward your goal. A positive mindset propels you toward success. An “I can” attitude goes a long way, even if you aren’t entirely sure. How I see myself as a success or failure is part of my identity. I choose to see myself as a winner.
A few of those limiting beliefs may be opinions others have thrust upon you. I have gotten a lot better at not listening to these, but one creeps in every once in a while. Then it’s harder to give it the boot. I was told earlier this week I couldn’t do something. I did it.
Focus on those around you who are supportive. These helpers are not crutches. They are the ones who teach you to fish rather than give you fish. They teach you how to do something rather than do it for you. They encourage instead of criticize. They pick you up, dust you off after you fall, and tell you to keep trying.
Sometimes an invisible crutch is that everything is just fine. Nothing needs to change. Why push to hike a hill when flatlands are much easier? Why make life harder? Life is plenty hard already.
True, but without the hill, I don’t get the panoramic view. I don’t get to be where Native Americans chose as a location for burial grounds long ago. I don’t get the feeling of satisfaction I get from many things when I don’t do the work. Being at the top is worth the effort. The view is worth the work.
Crutch Man wasn’t there to show me up and make me feel sad about turning back early. I may not have encountered him at all had I kept going and looped around the top of the hill before heading back down.
I was supposed to see him.
He reminded me I am stronger than I think I am.
Sometimes I forget.
He was there to show me if he could do it, so could I.
Everyone has core themes – themes that make you who you are. Identifying what these are as an individual is a huge part in understanding your identity. Core themes become part of a healing plan because when you know who you are, you know your strengths. Leaning into your strengths can lead to faster healing.
We should always align what we do with our core beliefs. It’s part of being well and being happy. We all need to live our truths and core values.
I hadn’t thought much about my themes other than I was a teacher, a friend, a daughter, and that kindness was really important to me until I was diagnosed in 2012. With a lot more time on my hands to ponder my purpose, I could really expand on themes for my life. Then I could see how well these matched with my core beliefs. If there was a natural flow, then I knew that I was headed in the right direction. If something felt forced or there was resistance, something was out of line and either didn’t belong or needed a bigger adjustment.
Here are my core themes that I am reaffirming and reminding myself of as I live with cancer:
I am important.
My needs are important and need to be put first. I don’t come last. Yes, helping others is part of my purpose, but I need to make myself a priority. It feels really good when I snuggle in a blanket and sit by the fire with a book. I enjoy putting something else aside so I can go for a nature walk. Taking a break to drink a cool glass of refreshing green juice tastes heavenly. I have rediscovered the joys of reading and writing. I have gifts to share through teaching, writing, and journaling. My work is valuable.
I also need to choose activities and people who are calming, supportive, and fun. I am too important to put myself in harmful, negative, and stressful environments. There is no need to apologize or explain. No drama for me. I lived as a compromiser for too long to avoid arguments. Honestly, I thought it was easier that way. The problem was that the compromises, or all out giving in, was not calming, supportive to me, or enjoyable. It isn’t selfish to put yourself first. It’s self-care.
My life still has great purpose. When I taught, I made a difference day-by-day, child-by-child. Now, I approach new endeavors with that same driven ambition I had with teaching, but also with more balance since my schedule is highly flexible. What I have to say is important to share.
I am strong.
Another core theme is that I am strong and immensely powerful. No, I am not overly physically strong, but I’m getting stronger. I could never climb the rope in gym class or do a decent pull-up. Those are claims to fame that still elude me. But I have enough inner strength to match a hundred rope climbs and thousands of pull-ups. That’s right, thousands. I had the power to get a classroom singing to original lyrics and choreographed movements about respect for an assembly, AND I was able to get them to think it was cool because it was cool. I have the power to advocate for my best health and make it the best it can be.
I will exercise and eat well to feel better and give my body what I need to be healthy. Health doesn’t happen with just one or the other. Eventually, poor eating choices catch up with a person even if he or she is fit. Great eating choices don’t do a lot if someone never moves or exercises. There also is an emotional payout to exercising and eating well. I get my thirty-minute minimum every day.
I’ve had to dig my heels in a lot more over the past seven years, particularly in terms of what I will accept in terms of how I’m treated. As examples, I was not happy with past phone conversations and what I considered bullying from a long-term disability company that did everything in its power but help me. I spoke up, but it’s a long story and a subject for another post. I’ve also called the patient relations department a few times where I receive treatment over the repeated delays and long waits patients have in receiving treatments because of financial decisions rather than decisions focused on patient care. Here again, it’s a subject for another post. The take away is I’ve become strong enough to speak up for myself when my needs aren’t being met or someone has been rude.
I connect with nature.
I need nature. I love healing green spaces with lots of trees. I absorb the energy. Two summers ago on a short vacation, I observed this first hand. I had traveled with my sister to Door County on Wisconsin’s peninsula. I usually am ready sooner than she is in the morning. I would get a little droopy and sluggish waiting for her before we started our day. My energy level completely changed by simply driving through one of the state parks as a detour connecting one town to the next. The woods provided a combination of nature, peace, energy, healing, and spirit for me all in one. My mood shifted for the better.
I experience the same feeling wash over me whenever I drive into the UW- Arboretum. My mind unwinds as I meander along the paths. It’s the green, all the trees, and being in a place where any humans I meet are there for the same thing as me.
Peace and kindness are recurring themes.
I am all about peace and kindness. In 2013, I finally started a peace journal, made up of Bible passages, ideas from other religions on peace, poetry lines, famous quotes, songs, and anything about peace that resonated with me. When I quiet the house and everything around me, everything narrows down to particular words and thoughts. Then everything opens up big time. It’s pure meditation and oxytocin in action. My spirit soars and I feel like I leave or that I’m lost in the moment. Maybe I’m actually more present than ever. I believe a lot of people pray for peace, which is more important now than ever in today’s world. I read a distinction someone made not too long ago that if people prayed, meditated, or just thought (whatever you want to call it) to feel peace rather than for peace, it would be possible to achieve lasting peace between people in the world. We need to feel it within first and push it outward.
I am a teacher and a learner.
A core theme as a teacher and learner has been central to my life. I loved elementary school. I did well. Reading and immersing myself in a world of story couldn’t be beat. From as long as I can remember, I always loved learning and sharing what I learned. Whether a student or teacher, school was a place where I felt safe, successful, and supported. It’s what I wanted to give my students. Teaching always just fit who I was. I can’t explain it any other way. Sometimes I entertain thoughts of returning to school for courses in writing, history, archaeology, and literature just for fun. For now, I enjoy exploring what interests me on my own.
It is no coincidence that in work with my fitness coach I am focused on a lot of work to strengthen my physical core. I know what is at the center of my personal core. I have rock-solid personal core themes and know who I am. In this sense, I am very well aligned.
Happiness involves living in accordance with your core themes. What you identify at your core should be those things that bring you happiness, enjoyment, and peace. Associated words for these feelings may be energetic, hopeful, valued, proud, loving, joyful, and thankful. You may reconsider your actions if you associate feelings of guilt, boredom, frustration, anxiety, helplessness, discouragement, and anger with them. It seems obvious, yet many people stick with actions or beliefs that go against their core out of habit and because making a change is hard work. Make little changes. In a few months time, a small shift has happened where you feel more like you.
Alleys are narrow. I envision them as dark, lonely places, filled with scary things and unpleasant smells. Forgotten garbage litters the ground. Feral cats and large rats compete for scraps. Alleys potentially are filled with scary people who I’d like to avoid meeting. I wouldn’t be excited about the cats or rats either. They are not safe spaces. No one hangs out in an alley because it’s relaxing.
Back in my youth, I was much more adventurous. I found myself exploring Amsterdam for a few days on my own. I loved it there. The colors of flowers from the numerous flower markets were intense. I took canal rides to tour the city. I lost myself in a VanGogh museum. I relaxed in a beer garden and wrote postcards. The Anne Frank House where Anne hid from the Nazis for two years was transformative. The tourist in me took in everything possible. I may have mentioned in an earlier post that I make an excellent tourist. I even let a stranger buy me a drink and joined his family for dinner one night.
Amsterdam is also known for its nefarious red-light district. I figured it was fine to see during the day. My plan was to turn around if I felt it wasn’t safe. It was an easy walk to that area. I felt plenty safe but was very much out of my element. Gradually, I became aware I was one of the only women in the area not “working.” Women didn’t seem to be outdoors at all. I could not imagine what the area was like in the dark of night. It was time to turn around, however, I did not relish backtracking through what I had seen.
I spied an alley to my left. At the end of the alley rose a tall church steeple. Surely, I would be in a better environment if I took this shortcut. I couldn’t see anyone lurking about there. It was a short distance. It couldn’t be too bad. Weighing my options, I decided to do it. Was it a good idea? Yes and no. I had to use my hands to shield my eyes from windows on both sides that featured more things I didn’t want to see. I walked with a determined pace that was almost a run. I emerged from the dark alley back into the open sunshine and was thrilled to discover the church steeple I had seen was now a building that sold Christmas decorations. Perfect. I found a different route back to my room.
Where am I going with this?
Sometimes walking down a narrow, dark alley may be the only way to find the light again.
From time to time, something scary has to be experienced in order to get to a better place. The scary thing can be unplanned, unavoidable, and unravel life. Fear can stop us from pursuing or reaching our goals. Fear can stop any meaningful movement forward. Fear can keep us unwell.
I have had a lot of practice with fear as someone living with cancer. There has been information to process and digest. Decisions have been made. Many appointments, tests, and results have been faced that I would rather not have had to deal with at all. The process has repeated over and over with revised information, more decisions, and so many more appointments. Life has been filled with uncertainty in the same way as not knowing what may be lurking and waiting in an alley. It seems I’m always adjusting and adapting. I face all these hurdles because not facing them is more fearful than facing them. The distance has been much longer than what I walked in the alley in Amsterdam.
Functioning well in what I call Fear Alley for the long run is too hard. Bodies in a constant state of stress do not recover. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Living in a state of chronic stress where cortisol levels are always elevated affects health negatively. Living in fear is like being in survival mode all the time. It’s high stress. Your body, your mind, your soul can’t recover when in a constant state of fear. Those things are sacrificed so the fear can survive.
Chronic stress is the metaphorical mugger lurking in Fear Alley. Stress can contribute to health conditions such as obesity, ulcers, depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, and hair loss. A negative relationship exists between stress and the immune system, affecting the way certain cells find and attack cancer cells. Our natural killer cells don’t work as well in a stressed environment. The immune system works better when unstressed. Stress is very handy to have around in fight or flight situations, but surviving in a heightened state of prolonged fight or flight for months and years is going to cause more problems in the long run that will cause a vicious cycle of ongoing stress. Those living with cancer have better outcomes when stress levels are lower. To remain in some type of warrior state where I feel like I am in a constant battle keeps me in a state of stress. I won’t do it. I can’t. It makes my heart hurt. My body physically shakes. Muscles in my gut tighten as if anticipating a punch. The fear and worry spike my anxiety levels.
What if we believed in hope instead?
What if fear and stress were left behind in the alley and images of the alley just faded away forever? You would be left standing in the sun, absorbing warmth, light, and hope into every cell of your being. Your body would have an opportunity to relax and thrive. You’d sleep more soundly and feel assured that things were going to work out. Thoughts and ideas would connect easily in your mind. You’d feel something in your soul that just felt right. This sounds really good to me! For me, less stress means I’m much calmer and more relaxed. My heart doesn’t race. I don’t shake. My stomach is happier. So am I.
Absorbing warmth and hope into every cell means leaving stress behind. How does this happen? Meditate. A few breaths make a difference. Start with inhaling fully for three or four counts and then slowly exhale for the same number. Repeat this four or five times. It’s a mini-break and gives your body an opportunity to reset. Go for a ten-minute walk if there’s time. You’ll combine deep breathing and get a few minutes of exercise. Other ways you can lower stress are to spend a few minutes writing in your gratitude journal, think of something to make you laugh, or make a quick phone call to a friend. Use affirmations to set the positive, hopeful, no stress mindset that you seek.
Hope isn’t found at the end of a dark alley. It’s found in all the little moments where a thought makes you smile, you spend time doing something that brings you joy, or you take that ten-minute walk. All those moments add up. Hope is found in the heart. Ultimately, this means hope could even be found as you walk through what is fearful. Somehow. Maybe it’s just a small molecule of hope, but it grows as you inch toward the end of the alley. Hope is always within.
Don’t let fear crush hope.
Hope makes living with cancer so much easier than trying to live with it from a place of fear. It’s like permanently living in the Amsterdam flower market or having the Van Gogh museum completely to yourself. Every part of your life feels better with hope. There may be alleys to walk through that are unavoidable. I wouldn’t recommend strolling down any just for the experience. Hope is obtainable without an alley walk. I’d like to think hope is also unavoidable.
We all need to hold on to hope and not let go.
We all deserve the sunny parts of Amsterdam.
All the time.
When can fear be the only path to lead you to something better?
How can you approach fearful places differently and come from a place of hope?
This type of question fascinates me. It’s a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection and discovery. The answer can change over time as different significant events are experienced, and even as major interests come and go. When I first started thinking about storytelling objects, the number three popped into my mind. Three objects was a good number. Three objects soon became extremely limiting. Then I tried to compartmentalize my life into three sections: past, present, and future. I could have several objects within each section. The future section posed the biggest problem. A crystal ball is not one of my objects. Time as some sort of construct to organize my story helps, but something is still missing here, too. Finally, I fell back on simple self-reflection to identify objects to represent stories that collectively tell a little bit of the story of my life.
Object: Lisa and the Grompet (book)
There have been countless times where I’ve unearthed a memory and thought, “Ah-ha, so this is where it started.” I have found letters I wrote to my mom while I lived in Scotland declaring how I might as well go places on my own so I could see as much as I could and do what I wanted. I went all over on my own and thought perhaps this was where my independent streak was born. Being in Scotland for a year, however, was already a story of independence.
But it goes back further. Both my parents always valued education as a way to be independent and for me to stand on my own. Good call, parents. I place a high value on education for many reasons. It continues to give me a lot of happiness. It gave me wonderful years in a career I loved. Being independent enough to support yourself and get to do what you love can’t be matched.
But this story still goes back even further, quite a bit further. I remember my dad dropping me off for Sunday school for the first time. We were early and no one else was there. A little boy showed up. My dad wanted to stick around to make sure I was okay, but I shooed him off, telling him I was just fine and had a new friend. He reluctantly left.
For a long time, I thought this was the first memory of me asserting an independent spirit, but no, I can trace it back further still. As a young child, there was this book I loved to check out repeatedly at the public library – Lisa and the Grompet. It was about a little girl Lisa who was bossed around by everyone in her family.
She knew what she needed to do. No one had to keep reminding her. One afternoon she discovered a little grompet creature outside who needed someone to take care of it and tell it what was what. Hmmm . . . I felt a lot like Lisa and never liked being told what I should do. Yes, this I think is where my story of independence subconsciously took root. Maybe I was born knowing I was okay on my own. That would backtrack the story even further. Who knows? I need people like we all do. What I am saying is this book had an effect on me and there has been an identifiable pattern that turns up at other times in my life.
Photos are an easy choice. I love going through albums and remembering favorite moments with my family. They are a collective timeline of my life, so it’s really not possible to choose just one. Together they tell my story. There are photos of birthdays, holidays, vacations, achievements, picnics, days up at my grandma’s farm, pets, and many special occasions. Every year there was a classic photo of the first day of school. Family experiences and values shape so much of who we become. Looking back at those photos helps me remember those times. Photos of family (and friends who are family) are good storytellers. Perhaps my enjoyment of past photos even points to some of my present interests in photography. Important ideas keep showing up.
Story: Teaching and Writing
I’ve written over twenty years of lesson plans with pencils. Hundreds of kids have used thousands of pencils to demonstrate many levels of learning and understanding. They have borrowed and kept many. Too many. I should have taken out stock in a pencil company. I still prefer a yellow Ticonderoga and get a bit of a rush when I begin to use a newly sharpened pencil with a fresh eraser. I’ve filled diaries and journals as a child and adult. These are great time capsules of years, trips, and things I thought terribly important at the time that are now preserved. Feelings that I never wanted to share anywhere else I could capture with words just for me so I’d remember. Many writing endeavors have been written on my laptop, yet that image of a pencil is a perfect representation for the plans, creativity, and story involved in each of them. Pencils create powerful stories. Pencils don’t have the story, but they are the way the story oozes out, word by word, until something complete and amazing is created.
I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard a single pencil can produce 45,000 words. I don’t doubt that one pencil can create thousands of words. Knowing an intangible quantity awaits inside makes pencils one of the truly powerful and magical objects in the world.
This story sucks.
I remember calling my mom after I had gotten my phone call with the news. She was upset. Then I headed over to her house to show her I really was okay.
I remember the day I told my students I wouldn’t be finishing the rest of the year. I explained I had been seeing a lot of doctors and they had found something wrong with some of my cells that weren’t working the right way. The name for it was cancer. My doctors had a really good plan for me but it meant I had to be away from them. That isn’t exactly where this story started, but it’s where it became common knowledge to a big part of my world beyond my immediate family and a few close friends.
Now, it continues. I marked my 100th treatment at the end of February. I don’t really have the words to express how that number makes me feel. A lot of conflicting emotions overlap in a messy jumble. It’s a juxtaposition of toxicity and life. I’ll keep on keeping on.
I really hate including this as part of my life’s story.
I’ve argued with myself trying to decide whether to include this part or not.
Me: Maybe I shouldn’t.
Also Me: How could I not?
Me: Don’t give in to it as a factor in your life.
Also Me: Too bad, I really don’t have a lot of moments where I feel truly away from it.
Both of Us: Cancer sucks.
I have worked so hard not to let it define me or become part of my identity. Appointments, treatments, side effects, and other related choices have changed the way I live. I needed to retire. Teaching defined me perhaps more than it should have, but I feel that is something almost innate in my being.
When I decided to blog, I knew sharing about how I’m trying to live well while living with cancer would connect cancer to my life more than I wanted. It’s not a story I wanted to have, but it’s part of my story nonetheless. The image of the pencil also blurs into this story. The teaching story also overlaps. Once again, important ideas keep showing up. I can choose how I tell it by the way I live which is why I’ve chosen to focus on wellness. I have a lot of wellness in me. I want people to see that and see me as me.
Story: Rejuvenation and Future
Paths surrounded by trees are some of my favorite places. Trees re-energize me.
I am relaxed spending time in nature. From out of nowhere, solutions show up for problems. Something creative happens. Inspiring ideas come to me, whispered by the breeze. The fresh air makes me feel fantastic. Depending where I am, I see turkeys, deer, or cranes. I can’t always see where my path leads and that’s okay. Sometimes I know where I’m going; sometimes I don’t. I’m going somewhere and I choose to believe it’s good.
Many objects make up the story of our lives. Books, photographs, pencils, cells, and paths make up part of my story. These may not be the best objects to choose, but they are what I’ve chosen here. For now, there are many other books to read and photos to take. I have much to write whether with pencils, pens, markers, or keyboards. My story is still being written. Creating an environment where healthy cells thrive and abnormal ones don’t is an important focus. I love being in nature walking familiar paths or exploring new ones.
Ultimately, my story is one where I find a way. Always.
What objects come to mind that could tell part of the story of your life?
What special objects hold important memories for you?
There is a saying that goes along the lines that a window opens when a door closes. It fits if you’re Maria in The Sound of Music and venturing out of the convent on a new adventure. Otherwise, not so much. I don’t care for it and find it’s misguided. I get the point being made, but the visual doesn’t work for me.
Have you ever tried to walk out a window? I did when I was about ten years old. I held a practice evacuation drill out our dining room window in case other routes were blocked in the event of a fire. It must have been Fire Prevention Week, and well, it was me, talking about my day and being all teacher-like. It was straight forward enough, but climbing out the window is how it happens, not walking. Climbing is more involved than walking. A door closing and a window opening are not equivalent at all.
What about when a window closes? Is opening a gate appropriate? Would you come and go from a skylight? Should you dig a tunnel? No! None of these are equivalent either. They are insane comparisons.
But a door! It closed! What is one to do?
Make a new door . . . a better door.
I love everything about this door. The ivy growth, fresh green planks, and carved heart are all perfect. This will be the door I take when I need to imagine a new door for myself. Maybe one day I will find it.
I don’t have an issue with new endeavors, but it is just wrong to say that walking through windows is the same as walking through doors. Try an experiment and come and go from your home for a week through a window and see if it’s really the best route. Chances are you’ll get better at climbing in and out of a window, but you might also attract the attention of local officers asking to see your identification.
The better path is to use your strengths and personal power tools to create a new door. Maybe you’ll make several doors and mark them A, B, and C, behind which are potential new opportunities.
My trouble is I sometimes don’t know what the new doors are really about until after I’ve walked through them and figure a few things out. For example, when I took a second year medical leave, the purpose was two-fold. My school district really was trying to make life less stressful for me. Leaving a slim chance of returning to business as usual also didn’t close the teaching door entirely. Strangely enough, when the teaching door closed, it instantly transformed into a retirement door and there I was already, moving step-by-step, and making progress. It was the door I needed in disguise.
I have worked hard to make new doors for myself. I’m still working on the courage to walk through a couple of them. It’s a work in progress and sometimes a little scary. Courage is a good companion to have at my side.
Reiki is one of the new doors. Newish. I’ve dragged my feet. The door is there all shiny and ready. I’ve used the door but haven’t invited many to join me. It could be just for me. I don’t know yet. The opportunity is there to give and to positively affect others. Don’t get me wrong – I’m still team medicine all the way – there are just many pieces to wellness that can attribute to overall health. My basement transformed itself fairly effortlessly to a Reiki studio through envisioning a new possibility and help from Amazon. I used to think that I needed a strong calling to become a Reiki Master, but now my thoughts are different. If I can have even more energy available for self-healing, I will take it. Refusing a healing opportunity makes no sense. If I can share that with others so that they feel happier and healthier, I am working on that, too.
Blogging is another new door. It isn’t what I set out to do. It was more of an avenue that I thought would take me someplace else, which is still possible. I’m not blogging because it brings me great recognition or monetary gain. It doesn’t.
It does give me a platform for sharing thoughts and ideas that come from my heart. I’m in it for my heart – that’s why I write.
Realizing this is causing me to reassess my motivation to be represented by an agent. Is that a door I need or am I potentially even happier with my blogging door? Sure, I’d love a little more recognition and visibility. I am excited to see what doors may open and what doors I continue to create for myself through writing.
Staying active is also a new door. It’s never too late to make healthy changes. Having more physical skills would help, but I have more than I used to have. A lot of motivation is needed to keep me focused on fitness. I liken this process to one new door after the other. Every time I experience some modicum of success and feel pretty impressed with myself, I see another door waiting for me. For example, I have very tiny biceps that I can now flex. I am fascinated with them. I can’t do much else with them so I need to keep working. I’m not sure what I see as my next step, but I will figure it out along the way.
There have been hard doors.
Doors of grief and loss.
Doors of changing definitions of normal.
Doors of hard truths.
Doors through which only I can walk.
The door marked cancer has been a doozy. I didn’t make this door or ask for this door. It’s stained with pain, sickness, always something unknown. No narratives, fact sheets, observations, or best guesses even come close to what walking through this door is like. I kind of thought I knew from what I saw my mom go through, but I so did not know. The experience is individualized. No one truly understands, just like I can’t understand another’s experience. Some come close. Empathy and compassion are wonderful supports.
Yet, the hardest times can often lead to the greatest moments in your life. Hard times make and show a person’s character. Who are you when everything really sucks? Sure, I get grumpy and down. Sometimes I cry. But I also try really hard to hold to my core beliefs. My challenges have made me mentally and physically stronger. Supposedly, I have more courage. I’m not sure that’s true. Having cancer doesn’t mark me as an automatic recipient for a badge of courage. Hardly. It doesn’t make me inspirational either. It does make me go through things that many others do not. That’s what I have to offer. Maybe something else emerges from within, but I‘m not so different from anyone else.
Not all doors need to be hard.
Doors of rebirth and renewal.
Doors of love and light.
Doors of hope. I love those doors.
Doors again through which only I can walk.
Trust is huge to walk someplace new.
If one door closes, make all the new doors you need and trust they will be better doors.